On Clericalism

A note from Robert Royal: The Catholic Thing turns 15 years old today. How time flies! But thanks to all of you for your interest and support. Brad Miner suggests this celebratory cocktail, his ‘Cristo Rey‘: 3 measures of tequila / 1 measure of mezcal / ½ measure each of elderflower liquor and fresh lime juice / a splash of orange Curaçao / a dash or three of orange bitters. Shake or stir with ice and serve straight up or on the rocks, your choice. Garnish with a slice of lime. But we welcome any Catholic beverage, properly raised in a toast.

That Clericalism is a pejorative I gather. Mostly it is heard from the lips of the most powerful ecclesiastics; the pope, for instance, often mentions it. The word seems to enjoy more repetition than any other sin. What does it mean?

“Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated,” he famously remarked, to the Synod of 2018 on Young People.

That was about when I started looking for the meaning of this term. “Diversity” might describe the variety of ways it is defined.

Is it ecclesiolatry? – my first guess. Does the clericalist idolatrously worship the institutional church by which he is employed? Does he attribute her authority to worldly prestige? Is his faith not in God, but in the Church?

This seemed to correspond only partially to the corruption that was alleged against clericalists. True, they are worldly, as perhaps only a voluptuous priest can be, when he “cuts loose.” I have seen at least one example: of a priest who seemed more memorably secular, materialist, and carnal, than anyone in a profane trade.

But he wasn’t the type to be condemned for clericalism. His appetites required satisfaction outside the Church; and his position in the Church could only help him if he were better paid.

Pope Francis has said, repeatedly, that both the ordained and the laity participate in clericalism. The priest lords it over his parishioners; the parishioners fearfully obey. However this relation is restated (perhaps the laity aren’t frightened, but the victims of false esteem), it drifts away from a religious failure. Psychologists list the tricks used to intimidate people; clericalists use these.

And I have spent my adult life observing the many ways, practiced not only by priests and politicians, but every sort of “boss”  or “leader” or “foreman.” Christian leaders, not necessarily Catholic, participate in this game, and I have difficulty imagining the kind of heaven or utopia in which it doesn’t occur.

It is not even necessarily sinful, for anyone exhibiting knowledge of a subject has by that action invited others to listen. If he in turn does not listen to the queries – and Pope Francis seems to have a low opinion of his priests – his authority is compromised. The subject of his “command” soon learns that it is arbitrary.

And true, he may nevertheless obey, from fear, or to avoid the irritation of being hassled. But the Church today, especially in the West, is not in a position to hassle anybody; and the man who occupies the authority of the pulpit has difficulty even being heard. The false and sycophantic respect that, arguably, some prelates may have enjoyed in the past, is not available in our post-Christian, post-humanist environment.

“Let us be clear about this. The laypersons are not our peons, or our employees,” the pope has declared. But who thinks they ever were? Neither priests nor their people can be under this illusion at the present day. The priests are lucky if they even come on Sundays.

In his native Latin America, the pope has gallantly identified women as the victims of the epidemic of clericalism he discerns. “If we hope for a new and living chapter of faith in this continent, we will not get it without women. Please, do not let them be reduced to servants of our ingrained clericalism.”

Given the rapid disappearance of Catholic faithful from the Church in countries such as Argentina, the women have apparently already left, or contemplate leaving. Is it clericalism that has driven them out? Or perhaps a soupçon of clericalism was the last glue that held them.

It is hard to imagine a sin not illustrated in the Bible. A certain measure of abstraction is required to pull it out of the spiritual fabric, in which Christ is displayed as the first cleric. That the priest is supposed, by tradition coming largely from that Bible, to embody our Savior, for the purpose of liturgical celebration, makes clericalism a puzzling sin.

Understandable when the priest stands outside his liturgical role – for a priest does not know anything more about, say, climate change, than eight billion others – clericalism assumes he is mistakenly taken for an expert. He will be the explainer: as it were, the village explainer, now in a global village.

But that was never his main role, only a secondary function. In S.T. Coleridge’s account, “the clerisy” was to disseminate truth and learning, beauty and uprightness, to the least visited parts of the kingdom. The vicar’s wife also played a part. They were actually supposed to perform clericalism, in their geographic stations. Of course Coleridge was, like his separated wife, a Protestant, an Anglican.

Catholics, we hope, sense instinctively that priests deserve their respect. But this comes by saturation in a liturgy, in which the priest presides. The Orthodox East is identical with the Catholic West in this, and unlike Protestants, even in our clerics. They have no business enforcing obedience, outside the Mass; or they do not, in Christian teaching.

For our sins are sinful whether or not we claim the standing of priests. And the Christian teaching, on sin as on every other topic, is true beyond the clarity of homilies and laws.

Church and State were dissevered by Christ. He, in His person, and the Church, in His person, surrendered all powers of compulsion to the politicians – from the words “Give unto Caesar” to the fact of the Crucifixion.

Yes, I can imagine clericalism could be a moral stain. I can imagine that the voice of the Church is distorted when priests, bishops, popes, claim an authority that Christ did not. I can regret that, perhaps in the past, some were intimidated and their faith misdirected.

But the world is a mess, as it has persistently been since the Fall.


*Image: Cardinal and Nun [Caress] by Egon Schiele, 1912 [Leopold Museum, Vienna]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s Clericalism and Its Remedies

+Fr. Mark A. Pilon’s Varieties of Clericalism

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.